Abercrombie & Fitch CEO's ugly quest for attractive 'cool kids'
By Robin Abcarian
This week, a suburban Washington, D.C.-area mom packed up her three daughters’ Abercrombie & Fitch clothes and returned them to the firm’s chief executive, Mike Jeffries, with a note explaining that she wouldn’t be letting her kids shop at his stores anymore.
Why was she so ticked off?
Last week, Business Insider reported that Abercrombie refuses to make large-sized clothing. Retail analyst Robin Lewis told the website that Jeffries wants “thin and beautiful” people shopping in his store. "He doesn't want his core customers to see people who aren't as hot as them wearing his clothing,” Lewis told the website.
The Business Insider story also made note of a seven-year-old profile of Jeffries that ran in Salon. In that piece, Jeffries was upfront about Abercrombie’s obnoxious marketing scheme. Gotta give the man credit for confirming what every mother of a teenager could tell you:
“As far as Jeffries is concerned,” wrote reporter Benoit Denizet-Lewis in Salon, “America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere.”
Jeffries is quoted as saying: “ ‘In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.’”
That might have been true back in 2006, but it’s not anymore.
“Fast fashion” retailers H&M and Forever 21 do a pretty good job of exciting fashion customers of all ages and sizes. And -- no big surprise -- they’ve been stealing market share from the floundering Abercrombie & Fitch.
From a fashion standpoint, Abercrombie is a fairly lame label. I say this, having spent some time covering fashion, including the shows each season in New York, Paris, Milan and London.
My time on the beat coincided with the rise of the supermodels, the licensing craze that put the adjective “designer” in front of products from jeans to sheets, and the ascendance of unfussy but truly stylish American ready-to-wear thanks to fashion visionaries like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.
Abercrombie & Fitch came into its current incarnation around the same time. Though it sounds vaguely English, it’s a reinvented hunting and fishing outfitter, based in Ohio. It’s not what you would call a design house, really; it’s a retailer of relatively boring, overpriced clothes tarted up for teens.
The company seems always to be in the middle of some scandal or controversy: Its catalog photos are too suggestive, it’s selling thong underwear to pre-teens, a class action lawsuit claiming it forces less attractive and/or minority employees to work behind the scenes rather than on the floor.
So while there is nothing particularly original going on style-wise at Abercrombie, there is a certain genius for stoking the anxiety of youngsters who want to be considered cool by their peers.
Tellingly, it’s an anxiety that CEO Jeffries, now in his late 60s, never outgrew. As Salon put it:
“[Jeffries] wants desperately to look like his target customer (the casually flawless college kid), and in that pursuit he has aggressively transformed himself from a classically handsome man into a cartoonish physical specimen: dyed hair, perfectly white teeth, golden tan, bulging biceps, wrinkle-free face, and big, Angelina Jolie lips.”
Still trying to be one of the cool kids, I guess.